SHERRY IS MAKING A STIR in the cocktail world. It’s one of the oldest wine categories and has been reimagined by modern bartenders who love it for all the same reasons I do. It comes in a range of styles and is incredibly versatile—from tapas pairing to my favorite recipe for seafood bisque. So, what is sherry, really? A wine, or a go-to ingredient in cocktails and a well-stocked pantry? It’s all of these things and generally confusing as a result. With a lineage that dates back thousands of years in southern Spain, it’s time to set the record straight.
From dry to sweet, light to amber and port-like in style, sherry is a classic wine that owes everything to its origins. Locally known as Jerez, sherry comes from three small towns in Andalusia that form a historic triangle: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. It is a place of extreme beauty, known for its beaches, flamenco and alegría, where foodies come for the tapas and wine. Location is everything—true sherry can only come from this small growing region, where its roots are planted in a spectacularly white, chalky soil, known as albariza. Almost all sherries are made from the white Palomino grape or the sweet Pedro Ximénez (PX).
Sherry, like port, is a wine fortified with spirit to a higher proof. It starts out as all white wines do—then flor happens. A natural phenomenon, flor is a layer of yeast cells that form spontaneously on the surface of the wine, like a blanket of yellow-white flowers. In the lightest and driest styles, finos and manzanillas, flor acts as a natural barrier to oxygen and allows the wine to retain a pale-yellow color and crisp, refreshing aromas of almonds and sea spray. Katrin Naelapaa, director of Wines from Spain USA, shares how memorable that first sip of fino and tapas can be: “If you visit the region, you have an aha moment and really appreciate the tradition, the taste and the art of sherry.”
“The magic of sherry is the fact that it can start as one thing, then become something else,” says Rick Fisher, Spanish education director for the Wine Scholar Guild. “A Chablis can only evolve into Chablis, but a fino can transform into an amontillado, an entirely different style.” The range of sherry starts with finos, then progresses into richer amontillados, palo cortados, olorosos and sweet creams, with ever-increasing sweetness.
HIDALGO LA GITANA MANZANILLA ($16)
TANGY AND BRIGHT, WITH NOTES OF SEA SALT AND WHITE FLOWERS, THIS IS A BENCHMARK OF THE MANZANILLA STYLE, MADE EXCLUSIVELY IN SANLÚCAR. FOUNDED IN 1792, THE HIDALGO WINERY OWNS SOME OF THE CLOSEST VINEYARDS TO THE SEA. AVAILABLE IN A 500-MILLILITER BOTTLE, THE PERFECT STARTER SIZE, TREAT THIS JUST LIKE A WHITE WINE; SERVE CHILLED AND CONSUME WITHIN DAYS OF OPENING.
EMILIO LUSTAU LOS ARCOS DRY AMONTILLADO ($18)
A TEXTBOOK AMONTILLADO FROM ONE OF THE GREAT WINERIES IN JEREZ: EMILIO LUSTAU. MEDIUM-AMBER IN COLOR, DRINK AT ROOM TEMPERATURE (IT WILL KEEP FOR ONE MONTH AFTER OPENING). A DRY STYLE WITH HINTS OF HAZELNUTS, A TOUCH OF SMOKINESS AND ORANGE PEEL, PAIR THIS
WITH SEAFOOD BISQUE, SMOKED MEATS AND CHEESES.
EMILIO LUSTAU EAST INDIA SOLERA ($30)
INSPIRED BY THE TRADITION OF MATURING WINES EN ROUTE BY SEA TO THE EAST INDIES, THIS SOFTER BLEND OF PEDRO XIMÉNEZ WITH OLOROSO IS A GATEWAY TO THE FINEST CREAM SHERRY. REMINISCENT OF PORT, THE COLOR IS DEEP MAHOGANY, WITH BURNT CARAMEL, MAPLE, SPICES AND WALNUTS TO TASTE. SWEET AND FULL-BODIED, IT HAS GREAT BALANCE AND A BEAUTIFUL, LONG FINISH. SERVE WITH CHEESE AND DESSERT.
RECIPE: SHERRY COBBLER COCKTAIL
ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR COCKTAILS OF THE 19TH CENTURY—AND THE FIRST TO USE A STRAW AND CRUSHED ICE—THE SHERRY COBBLER IS JUST AS REFRESHING TODAY.
Combine 3 ½ oz. amontillado, ¾ oz. simple syrup
and 3 orange slices in a mixing glass.
Muddle, shake and strain over ice. Try mint and summer berries muddled with lemon for a summery variation.
Amontillados begin their journey as fino. Fortified to approximately 13.5 percent alcohol, they start out with a protective layer of flor. If the cask fails to develop flor adequately, the winemaking team will fortify the wine to an even higher alcohol level (around 17 percent), which kills off the yeast and allows oxygen to enter the system again. The type of sherry depends on the amount of flor in the cask; a palo cortado is an amontillado that loses its flor early on, while an oloroso is a fully oxidized wine that never develops flor. Sherries with less flor have a rich, nutty character and darker colors, ranging from tawny to amber. They are usually dry wines, while cream sherry is the sweet stuff, blended with PX to a ripe, raisiny-rich flavor.
To keep track of all of this in the cellar, sherry houses rely on a centuries-old winemaking process called the solera. In simple terms, a solera is a stack of casks. The oldest casks are at the bottom, and above layer upon layer of younger wines are stacked in successive order. The wine removed for bottling each year from the oldest casks is constantly replenished with the next oldest wine, in turn replaced by the wine above. This ingenious system preserves quality and ensures consistency. There is no “vintage” wine; instead, the makers date the age of the solera, some as far back as Osborne (1790), Valdespino (1842) and González Byass (1847). Traces of the original wines in each solera form a timeless character.
The sheer range can be daunting at first. Experts agree, start tasting to see what works. Fisher is an evangelist now, but as he recalls: “The first time I tried fino, it turned me off because I didn’t understand it. It took me a while to try other styles. Sherry is so versatile; it’s the driest wine in the world and the sweetest. Unlike other wines in the world, it can defy characterization.”
Naelapaa encourages beginners to “start with the bookends—first a fino and then an oloroso.” She finds the tawnier styles an easier intro: “If I could only offer one sherry, it would be an oloroso to start.”
Sherry is used to adapting to our palates. Three hundred years ago, its first success was with sweet creams; fortified wines were well-suited to long sea voyages and were all the rage for export, especially to England. Today’s preference is leaning drier, with more variety than ever, including rare, collectible bottlings. All that complexity has attracted the bartending crowd.
Lead bartender Brock Schulte of The Monarch Bar in Kansas City, Missouri, uses the versatility of sherry to full advantage. His Silver Dollar cocktail relies on a backbone of sherry infused with black tea and spice.
“Sherry adds layers of texture and flavor; it helps round out and lengthen the cocktail without adding an overdose of proof. It holds flavor well and plays well with others,” he says.
Fisher prefers drinks like the Sherry Cobbler, where the purity of the wine stands out, and above all, he recommends food pairing: “Try a fino with marcona almonds, finish a seafood bisque with amontillado or top vanilla ice cream with a PX cream—the flavors explode when you find the right pairing.”
Food-friendly, a cocktail favorite and an elegant sipper, there’s a sherry for everyone, if you’re ready to start the journey.
Helen Gregory is the founder and president of Gregory + Vine. She has worked in strategic brand management and communications for beverage industry leaders such as Moët Hennessy USA, Rémy Cointreau and STOLI, and has led award-winning hospitality, beverage and lifestyle campaigns for prestige clients from the European Union to Argentina, Australia, Chile, Israel, South Africa and across the United States.